“Rockets, moon shots spend it on the have-not’s money, we make it before we see it, you take it. Inflation, no chance to increase finance bills pile up sky high send that boy off to die.” Those are the lyrics to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 billboard hit, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” Over fifty years later, that song easily resonates with inner cities across America. In that bluesy melody, the chorus rings out, “Oh, make me wanna holler the way they do my life (He-ey-ey) make me wanna holler the way they do my life. This ain’t living, this ain’t living no, no baby, this ain’t living no, no, no, no.”
While Marvin was a soulful balladeer, he was also socially aware of the political and economic climate in the country. He expressed his dis-ease through music. This song reflected the existential crisis of those suffering from high inflation, low wages, increased taxes, and the rumblings of war to name a few. The antithesis suggests that “this ain’t living.” As if things were supposed to be different. That was 1971, and it appears that today’s America is repeating history. The streets may not reflect the riots of 1967 in Detroit, Michigan; Newark, New Jersey; or Cambridge, Maryland. However, the economic, social, and political challenges appear to be similar. It may be easy to blame today’s malady on the pandemic that sucked the life out of the country, however, that would suggest that resources were lagging prior to the pandemic. America is endorsed as a place of plenty. In this place of plenty, millions continue to struggle for health care, food, and shelter. Masses are deprived of the basics for survival, not because these things are unavailable.
The 1967 riots revealed the heat of social, economic, and political issues that possessed the simmering sparks which set off the riots, due to inhuman treatment of Black citizens. History reveals that riots were erupting prior to 1967. In Watts, in 1965, a riot was sparked by the excessive force against African Americans. In Harlem, in 1964, an unarmed black youth was shot by a white police officer. Students protested and the injustice ignited another riot that became an epidemic across the country, leading up to the summer of 1967. This is American history.
Why should we rewind and walk down the unsavory chronicles of the past, where the ugliness of America is visible? It is uncomfortable to look at the pain that reveals exactly who we are. Like most families, America is prone to move forward and ignore the distasteful things of yesteryear. However, similar skeletons in the closets of most families seem to fall out from time to time. They appear to not want to stay in the past. The skeletons of our lives want to speak. What are these skeletons of the past trying to say? It is my belief that Marvin Gaye’s song, “Inner City Blues” is a skeleton that is speaking. This bluesy melody from the past is speaking to America about the way things are and says “this ain’t living.”
The Old Testament prophets spoke to God’s people often about changing the path they were on. They were sharing from the annals of their history. They were informing the population that the way they were conducting their lives, that “ain’t living.” Perhaps Marvin, like the Prophets of old, held a concept of living. If his lyrics are an indication, then it has something to do with the relief of the massive amount of pressure that was levied on the vulnerable by the powerful.
While five decades may seem like a long time, in the scope of history it is but a blink of an eye. Philosopher George Santayana famously noted, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[i] It is imperative that we remember the past. The past has much to teach. Fifty years later, history is repeating itself in the sense that there is rising inflation, inadequate wages, political turmoil, and unjust policing. Many “hollered” when the United States Supreme Court overturned a five-decade landmark decision in Roe v. Wade. These things happened not only due to a lack of remembering or lessons not learned but by doing the same thing while expecting different results. It is time to do things differently.
Unfortunately, violence is ingrained in the ethos of this country. The list of American achievements is drenched in violence. If there is one thing that America knows how to do, it is fight. When will we learn that violence is not the answer? The answer to the challenges faced today is love. Therapist and counselor Andi Shi observes that the answer to any problem is love: “Love dissolves problems, whereas resistance sustains them. To resist a problem is to feed energy to it, just like feeding cancer cells with nutrients.” This perspective suggests that releasing the problem leads to a solution, whereas fighting against it fuels it. Since fighting has fueled perpetual violence and discord, thinking differently just may help. Instead of fueling and feeding the problem, starving it may manifest change.
It is a novel ideology and may sound passive. However, Martin Luther King Jr. dared to assert that it takes strength to love. Loving those who are different is challenging and uncomfortable. Loving those who have inflicted harm and hate is, for many, unspeakable. Yet, fighting one another continues to perpetuate violence and hate. The great leaders of history understood the key to harmony is love. This type of love is not predicated on emotions. There is more to the action of love than mere feelings. Love is the gateway to peace. What would the world look like if love were being fought for? What would change in this world if love was the motiving force behind each action? To live this way requires a total shift in how a person functions. Love must be the driving force behind all a person does. It must be the core value that directs and guides. When this happens, the world changes, one person at a time.
Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson is director of Hospital Ministry, Broome County Council of Churches and chaplain, Greater Binghamton Health Center. Both are located in Binghamton, New York.
[i] Santayana, George. The Life of Reason: Or, The Phases of Human Progress. New York: Scribner’s, 1922, p. 284.
Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash